Geert Mak is a Dutch author who shaped his own segment of historiography: a literary account of history in which the big picture of the past is coloured by personal stories, not of kings and generals, but of ordinary folk, artists or bystanders. He did so brilliantly with In Europa, his weighty account of the bloody 20th century of Europe, and numerous other books. His new book, Great Expectations, is a sequel to In Europa and paints a picture of Europe in the first twenty years of this century. The book is slightly disppointing. It lacks the depth of its predecessor, mainly because, as Mak himself acknowledges, it is hard to write a history of an age in which you fully participate.
In its weakest parts the book isn’t much more than a well ordered overview of press accounts, for example about Brexit and about the financial crisis of 2007-09. On some topics Mr. Mak transcends this by offering deeper insights, for example about the EU, Middle and Eastern Europe and the refugee crisis.
The title of the book refers to the great expectations that many people had about Europe around the turn of the century. The 21st century would be Europe’s century. As American author Jeremy Rifkin wrote: the American dream was over, the European dream was about to begin: Europeans lived longer, were better educated, were more prosperous, less criminal and had a better work-life balance.
But the optimism, even euphoria, about Europe, shared by large parts of the population, turned into pessimism and resistance within less than a decade. In 2005 many Europeans voted against a new constitution for the EU. The EU is a unique political and diplomatic achievement, Mak writes, but it is also a strange edifice of a few ideals and thousands of comprises. It had become an upside down federation, weak in its core and strong in the details. It resided in a vacuum between a past full of war that it wanted to move away from and a future that lacks the clarity and purpose to move to.
Moreover, too long has the EU been carried by the elite and only tacitly supported by the people. That public support has been eroded by a democratic deficit. Many people didn’t feel represented anymore, when bureaucrats in faraway Brussels decided about issues close to their homes. That was also an issue during the eurocrisis of 2008-09, when politicians under pressure made far-reaching decisions, presenting those as if there was no alternative. The increasing skepticism amongst citizens was augmented by national governments that painted the EU as a necessary evil and blamed Brussels for everything that was wrong, conveniently ignoring their final power over the European Commission.
Mr. Mak reproaches the EU about its failure to define and execute a consistent immigration policy. When millions of refugees and immigrants travelled to Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain from 2014, Europe reacted in panic. The borders of the EU were moved to Turkey and Libya. Helping drowning refugees became a criminal offense. The redistribution of refugees that was agreed upon became a tragic failure. Politicians didn’t respond responsibly but reacted mainly by looking away from the problems, that still linger on. We should be ashamed that 34,361 refugees died on their passage to a better life, Mr. Mak writes.
The EU can and should do better. The author recalls the years after WW II when twenty million displaced persons roamed in Europe. Amid all chaos and disruption all of them found their old or a new place to live.
Mr. Mak acknowledges that the immigration issue is a dilemma. If Europe opens its borders, it will lose part of what it is, but that loss will also occur if it shuts itself off. What to do with all those Afghans, Pakistanis and Iraqis who present themselves as Syrian war refugees? What to do with Africans who say they are family of a murdered chief, participated in a rebellion or were raped? These three stories are consistently reported by Africans, Mr. Mak writes, but are not necessarily true. What to do with those who pretend to be sick? Many immigrants use false pretentions to achieve their dream of a better life. The main question according to Geert Mak is how far our solidarity extends.
Mr. Mak dedicates only a few paragraphs to Donald Trump, whom he calls an out-of-control child king. Someone with a personality disorder as his would be kicked out of any leadership position of a normal company but he is still getting away with the illusion that you just need a magic wand to govern a country and that you don’t need a large group of experts, dedicated specialists and civil servants who are working continuously to come to terms with a complex and complicated reality based on facts.
We are on the brink of a new era according to this book. The world is looking very different now from twenty years ago, even before the eruption of the corona crisis. We need historians to help us understand what we are experiencing. This book is a brave, if not always successful, attempt to read the signs of our times.
Geert Mak. Grote verwachtingen. In Europa 1999 – 2019. Atlas Contact, 2019